‘You Can Do So Much More in Comics’: An interview with Bruce Mutard

Pepi Ronalds talks to graphic artist Bruce Mutard about the art of comics - and why it’s his chosen medium. They talk combining words and images, rewriting and adaptation, and why comics gives readers more control over the storytelling experience than that other visual medium, film.

Bruce Mutard, The Sacrifice, 2008. Published by Allen & Unwin.

Bruce Mutard, The Sacrifice, 2008. Published by Allen & Unwin.

‘Images alongside one another induce a sense of motion,’ says Bruce Mutard of his preferred medium: comics. ‘It’s a sense of time parting very specifically.’ Mutard is a graphic artist, writer and illustrator of over 20 years standing. His work (including The Sacrifice and The Silence) has been esteemed by theorists such as Scott McCloud and his hand has been shaken by the great Robert Crumb. He’ll be appearing, with other comic artists, at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.

‘I always liked drawing and I was also a writer. But it never occurred to me to put the two together. I just fell into that,’ Mutard says. He had no idea how he might become a comic artist (and claims it’s taken a good part of his career to figure it out). But he’s glad he persisted. ‘Everything I think about in terms of my own creativity is always in comics. Comics is my chosen medium.’

Mutard loves seeing everything in the world produced into a series of lines, within a series of panels with a mix of words and images. ‘Comics induce this interesting dual temporal quality that forces you to stop upon the image, to read the words. The images are read in microseconds; the words take time to pass through,’ he says.

The combination of word and images gives comics a particular complexity. They resonate deeply when you consider variables like illustration style, expression, font, the shape of a panel and the choice of paper. Mutard says the medium of comics gives readers more control over their reading experience than film, for example (which also engages both words and pictures). ‘Film passes in front of you. It’s a package. You’ve got to take it as it comes. In comics you can vary that.’ A reader can flip the pages, go back and forward. Suspend their reading. ‘You can do so much more in comics.’

Bruce Mutard, Small Things, 2011. Published in Criminal Intent, Black Glass Press, 2012.

Bruce Mutard, Small Things, 2011. Published in Criminal Intent, Black Glass Press, 2012.

Mutard tends to start his projects with words. He writes scripts in which he establishes plot, dialogue, settings and characters. He starts with words because in graphic novels the art can take years to complete. ‘I call the process of layout one of adaptation from one medium to another,’ he explains. Changes are made along the way. ‘The pictures reveal storytelling linkages, processes and dynamics that I could not have thought of with just words.’ There’s a lot of tweaking and rewriting in the comics creation process.

‘In comics all five senses are engaged because there are symbols or marks on the page that represent them all,’ says Mutard. We’ve all learned tropes that inform our reading – like a sense of smell represented by graphic morphemes. Somehow comics can show us the difference between the smell of a freshly baked pie and a freshly evacuated poop.

Bruce Mutard - art & Jason Franks - w, At Own Risk, 2010. Published in Ungenred, Black Glass Press, 2013.

Bruce Mutard - art & Jason Franks - w, At Own Risk, 2010. Published in Ungenred, Black Glass Press, 2013.

‘I’m always interested in finding visual ways of expressing quite abstract concepts in very short packages. The less I have to write with words the better. It can just be a single panel. It can just be a character’s glance. It can be a look, an expression of their body that I’ve drawn – the framing within the panels. It could be anything,’ says Mutard.

‘It’s very important to me that you have the images in the comics medium. They do the bulk of the work and readers must read those pictures. And I think they do that literally. After all, words and letters are only a special class of images anyway. That’s what they are: marks on paper.’

Portrait of Pepi Ronalds

Pepi Ronalds is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She's currently researching and writing a book about rebuilding and recovery in Japan after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

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